Monday, January 18, 2010

AIA Capitol Hearing Skirts At-Grade Safety Issue; Chapter’s Vision Won’t Do What Honolulu Needs

City rail project supporters waved signs at State Capitol.
The new transit experts within the local architecture community are still holding their panel discussion as we write this, so it’s possible they’ll be put on the spot about the accident-prone nature of at-grade rail. We left before the staged event got around to public comments.

But the panel avoided dipping into that swamp in its initial presentation, which dwelled on other issues such as noise, view obstructions and rainwater runoff. The panelists made a strong show of supporting rail – just not the City’s above-grade plan.

Jeffery Nishi said he’s pro-rail as long as it’s a “flexible system.” By that, he means it needs to run at-grade for at least part of the 20-mile route. Not mentioned was the inarguable fact that at-grade rail can’t be as fast and frequent as grade-separated transit.

Peter Vincent said rail will be a “solution to traffic,” betraying his lack of depth in the subject, since rail won’t be any such thing. Traffic will continue to grow, and the Honolulu rail project will restrain that growth, but a “solution” to traffic it’s not and doesn’t claim to be. Rail will be an option to commuting in traffic – a role it performs for millions of commuters around the world.

Vincent criticized the City’s EIS for allegedly not addressing other technologies – something he apparently is unaware was done exhaustively during the Alternatives Analysis and most particularly by the transit experts panel, which selected steel-on-steel by a vote of 4 to 1. And implausibly, he found fault with the system’s EIS for Phase 1 – Kapolei to Ala Moana – for not covering components of Phase 2 – Waikiki and UH Manoa. He then showed a slide of an overhead guideway crossing above the H-1 freeway near UH, a segment which isn’t in the Phase 1 plan.

Houston – Without the Crashes

Vincent continued the show with slides showing Houston’s at-grade system, but he failed to mention that at one point in its operation, Houston’s MetroRail trains had a collision rate about 25 times the national average for light rail systems.

And that’s as good a place to keep our focus on this predictable AIA presentation as any, because safety must not be brushed aside as we plan this major Honolulu infrastructure project. Architect Sidney Char though wasted no time sweeping right past safety and completely avoided the collision potential of his chapter’s preferred at-grade train.

Remarkably, he then pointed out how unsafe elevated trains can be if they have no platform screen doors. People dangling their feet over the edge of the station platform could be swept in front of the train, he said, or they could be electrocuted if they jumped onto the “hot” third power rail.

Char then played the crime card by suggesting elevated train stations would be rife with crime if built here, though he offered no basis for his assessment. And so it went – finger-pointing this way and that about safety without pointing at the obvious and most likely problem of at-grade rail – collisions with pedestrians and vehicles.

Learning from Elsewhere

We’ve written repeatedly about safety here at Yes2Rail, including our two most recent posts, and we’re going to continue doing so. The Arizona Republic carries a story today that should be required reading for the AIA’s transit experts.

The story says almost half of the Metro’s crashes in the past year happened on a single mile-and-a-quarter stretch that runs through downtown Phoenix.” That segment is “packed with bars, businesses, pedestrians and distracted motorists, a tough environment for even slow-moving Metro trains.” That sounds like a good description of downtown Honolulu.

Even more telling is the mention that Metro trains are “slow-moving.” That also would describe Honolulu’s trains if the system were built at-grade, and that would be exactly what we do not need in Honolulu.

Honolulu rail is designed to move large numbers of commuters quickly, reliably and safely through our urban core. Any part of the system built at-grade would defeat the very purpose of our system. At-grade can’t be fast; it would actually creep through congested Chinatown. It can’t be frequent, because with drivers at the controls, trains would require greater time separation between them. And it can’t be as reliable as elevated rail due to the inevitable crashes like Houston and Phoenix continue to experience. (Check out the video of a recent Phoenix crash that we think should be shown at the next AIA chapter meeting.)

The AIA chapter probably convinced some in the overflow audience that it knows what’s best for Honolulu. But quite simply and bluntly, it doesn’t. The audience couldn't understand that from sitting through this one-sided event with no panel participants to support the City’s project.

That’s quite a strange way to run a railroad they have down there at the State Capitol.
An overflow crowd listens to the AIA version of transit.

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